By Dr. Mordechai Sochen (Minneapolis)
The progymnasium [junior high school] was established in 1921. During its first year, about 40 students, aged approximately 13, enrolled. They all studied in one classroom. The teacher and first principal was Mr. Israel Magentza. He was a young man, a bachelor, charismatic, with vast knowledge of the humanities generally and Jewish studies in particular. But most of all he was an “emissary” par excellence, devoted to his work, with a national-pioneering disposition, who knew what was ahead of him and who overcame all difficulties.
In his first year, he stayed in the house of a German pastor at the edge of the city. This house was furnished as a school for teaching his community. The pastor, by the way, was also the German teacher. The students suffered from him, because he beat them with his hand, which had a heavy ring on one of its fingers. At one time, the students rebelled and refused to return to the class after the break.
The subjects we studied in the first year were Hebrew language and literature, Jewish and general history, geography and the Bible. Most of the subjects did not have textbooks. The teacher used to prepare stencils in his own handwriting and the students used to come to his room to help him make copies on the hectograph.
During its second year, the progymnasium moved to the town center, to a two-story building with classrooms and a staff room. Mathematics, nature studies and Lithuanian were added as subjects. For mathematics we used the book of Sh. Kapit, hand-written and printed by offset. The history text was written by Luboshitsky. For literature we used an anthology (by K. Shulman?) and the Hebrew syntax of N. Lidsky.
The first teacher, Mr. Magentza, had an enormous influence on his students both within and outside the classroom. I remember that he took the students to Pelednagiai, about seven miles from the city, where there was a training farm for pioneers preparing for aliya to Eretz-Israel. You can imagine the impression this visit made on young students. Here they saw the Zionist idea illustrated before their eyes, hinting at the path of their future fulfillment. He helped the students to set up a Hebrew library. They ordered books from the “Dvir” and “Shtibel” publishing houses, and they satisfied their intellectual appetites with a selection of general literature translated into Hebrew, and of modern Hebrew literature. They organized literary “trials”. One of these, on Samuel and Saul, was publicly presented and angered the orthodox because of the non-traditional interpretations expressed by some of the students.
Most of the students belonged to the Hebrew Scouts, which later became affiliated with Hashomer Hatzair. Undoubtedly, that group’s attitude regarding Zionist pioneering indirectly influenced the decision of the management to change the non-nationalistic Scouts federation to one of a clear Zionist orientation.
When Magentza left Keidan, the school decided to bring in a principal with a formal doctoral degree. The aim was to legitimize the institution in the eyes of the government, granting it the right to issue high-school matriculation certificates. Because it was difficult to find such a man in Lithuania, they brought one from Germany. His name was Rabbi Dr. Meir Kashinsky, a religious Jew who had difficulty speaking Hebrew, and taught history in German. Apart from him, we had a humanities teacher called Klachko, and a Mr. Bloch to teach science. We also had a good teacher of Lithuanian, the wife of an army officer who lived in the area. Attention was also paid to physical training. The gymnastics teacher used to march us through the city streets to the gymnastics hall, where we would perform various complicated physical exercises.
After Dr. Kashinsky came Dr. Ritshman. He was an elderly man, pleasant and easygoing with everyone. In his days, the school was managed smoothly and peacefully. One of his projects involved establishing a nature museum. He used to bring snakes, butterflies, etc., and display them within a glass cupboard.
After four years in the school, those students who wished to continue their studies would transfer to the Hebrew gymnasium in Kovno. I remember that we had a group of about ten students who sat for examinations in 1925 at “Schwabe’s gymnasium” in Kovno, and nearly all of them were accepted into the sixth level.
Those were good days for the Jews of Lithuania. There was an atmosphere of freedom, and we were able to develop education and the community autonomously according to the spirit and tradition of our people. However, this period did not last long. The Lithuanians undermined this freedom with all sorts of restrictions. Many of the nation’s youth foresaw that the golden age in Lithuania would not last, and they made aliya to Eretz-Israel. Many of our school’s students are living now in Israel, on kibbutzim and in towns. It’s a pity that so many stayed behind and were trapped in the Holocaust.
Translated by Chaim Charutz.